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Hoop City USA
Tobacco Road, watch your back. Gainesville, better enjoy that trophy while you’ve got it. LA is back with a vengeance and is ready to reclaim its place atop the college basketball kingdom.
With UCLA and USC both advancing to the Sweet 16 for only the second time ever, the local buzz hasn’t been this great in decades. The Bruins have been a consistently good program since the departure of John Wooden from the sidelines (12 Sweet 16 appearances), but only occasionally great (1995 champion, Final Fours in 1976, 1980, and 2006), certainly a far cry from their magical run of ten national titles in twelve seasons. Meanwhile, the Trojans’ hoops squads have been mostly an afterthought, with momentary flashes of excellence (the Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner and Clancy/Scalabrine/Bluthenthal teams come to mind) amongst continued mediocrity (five NCAA tournament wins total over the last 45 years).
For perhaps the first time in the modern era, it appears that both schools are well-positioned for long-term success. Though both schools face tall tasks to continue to advance in this year’s tournament (UCLA facing off with its coach’s old program Pitt, USC drawing top-seed North Carolina), the pieces are in place for these deep postseason runs to become an annual occurrence. Both teams are led by terrific coaches – the Bruins’ Ben Howland and the Trojans’ Tim Floyd – who are proven program builders, and integrate order and discipline with top-notch strategy; witness USC’s dismantling of trendy pick Texas and likely player-of-the-year Kevin Durant. Both teams have tremendous athletes all over their respective rosters. And both teams are landing the highest-regarded prep recruits (Kevin Love for UCLA, OJ Mayo and his weed for USC) to replenish the talent pool. This is great news for LA hoop fans, bad news for the Pac 10 and the rest of the nation.
While the ardent supporters of both schools aren't terribly excited to see the other succeed, a legitimate rivalry between the teams is perhaps the best things for both schools and for the city. Pure hatred can be entertaining to a point, and there are hundreds of rivalries across the country with equal amounts of venom as UCLA-USC. But hatred mixed with top-flight competition brings a far greater degree of relevance and recognition beyond the local scene. Michigan-Ohio St. football. North Carolina-Duke basketball. People pay attention not only because the emotions are so high, but also because the stakes are always high as well. The games actually matter on a national level. It brings these schools and these geographies to center stage. And there's no place that should be more on center stage than LA.
Look at the gridiron. USC has been hogging the spotlight for its insane run of success over the last several years, but UCLA's upset win this season finally brought the rivalry back into the limelight after seven years of Trojan domination. Are the Bruins back to the Trojans' level? Of course not. But they're at least back in the conversation again.
Similarly, the Trojan basketball squad is putting itself back on the map in a time when folks east of the Mississippi and the honks at ESPN typically only think blue and gold when it comes to noteworthy teams out West. Floyd & Co. still have plenty of work to do to catch up to UCLA's national profile, but sustained success in the tournament can validate the quality of ball being played beyond the walls of Pauley Pavilion. Even schools like Long Beach, which had a terrific season but flew far under the radar even in SoCal, benefit from the spillover effect of exposure that comes when the two big LA teams are riding high.
So if you're a fan of LA (or even if you're Joe Bruin or Tommy Trojan), keep hope alive that the Bruins and Trojans will continue their run. Can you imagine the hoopla surrounding a UCLA-USC matchup in the finals? Sure it's a longshot. But it's becoming less of a pipe dream by the day.
#2 UCLA vs. #3 Pittsburgh
West Regional Semifinal
HP Pavilion, San Jose, CA
Thursday, 6:40 PM (CBS)
#5 USC vs. #1 North Carolina
East Regional Semifinal
Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, NJ
Friday, 6:57 PM (CBS)
AP Photos by Marcio Jose Sanchez and Rick Bowmer